Mawaru Penguindrum Review (Secret Santa)

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I have wanted to watch Mawaru Penguindrum for a long time, basically since it was originally airing. Unfortunately, it has been one of the few shows in recent years that never got a simulcast release and that eventually just all came out when Sentai Filmworks licensed it for physical release. It may have been simply that it wasn’t the “new” thing anymore when this happened, but I never did end up going out of my way to marathon it on Hulu or to get the Blu-rays . When it ended up being one of my choices for Secret Santa this year I was rather happy that I would finally get the chance to watch it.

I think the thing that I most associated with Penguindrum going into it, was its director and creator, Kunihiko Ikuhara. He is most famous for directing large sections of Sailor Moon and also being the director and one of the creators of the series Revolutionary Girl Utena. That being said though, I don’t have a strong tie to either of those series.  I have only watched an episode of Utena, and my experience with the original Sailor Moon is similar to most, having seen it growing up and that’s about it. The real reason I relate the show to Kunihiko Ikuhara is because of his tie to another person, Yoji Enokido, who was also one of the creators of Utena. He went on to create some of my favorite shows, Star Driver and Captain Earth, and I always heard how his work on Utena heavily influenced himself and Star Driver.

Mawaru Penguindrum is definitely associated with something else though, and that is being totally crazy and deep and showy and metaphorical and all that stuff. A show you really have to think about. Going into it I was prepared for that, but even just describing what the show is about, shows just how weird it is.

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The 3 main characters of Penguindrum are a set of 3 siblings, two twin brothers and a younger sister, living alone together in a tiny house. Unfortunately, the young sister, Himari is sick with a terminal disease and is expected to die soon. One day, the 3 decide to go to the aquarium they all used to enjoy going to, and this also happens to be that Himari dies.

BUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUT. Yeah. It’s a big but….. But the penguin hat that the brother Shoma, the blue haired passive brother, bought Himari at the aquarium was actually home to/is an alien/supernatural being that brings her back to life and asks that certain conditions be met if they wish for their sister to not die again. The mysterious being, who takes over the sister’s body and dresses her into a magical girl like outfit, transports the two brothers to some sort of colorful “rock-n-roll” time-space where she descends from a giant robotic teddy bear’s stomach on an elaborate staircase and explains to them what they need to do for her. Oh. Also, this is all happing while a J-pop song plays in the background and she slowly removes parts of her outfit while descending the stairs (as seen in the first gif of this post).

She explains that what she needs the two brothers to do is find the “Penguindrum” and bring it to her. The only information she can give them is that they can find a person who has it on a train at a certain time. And that is essentially the beginning of the show. From there we meet the cast of characters, explore their pasts and what their goals are in the present and how they all tie together.

Before getting to deep, I will express my evolution of emotion towards the show. In the beginning, just being honest, I was totally in L-word with the show. The best way I can describe the beginning of Penguindrum is that it shows what can only be accomplished in anime. I often wonder why it is that I gravitate so towards anime than any other medium. Hollywood movies, video games, books. I think they are all great mediums and I enjoy them all, but it is anime and manga that I would only ever let myself use the L-word with. I like books. I really like video games. I really, really like moves. But I honestly do, L-word anime and manga.

The first few episodes of Penguindrum, well, drummed up these emotions in me that I hadn’t felt while watching an anime in a long time. I think the description 3 paragraphs previously shows just how weird it is, and I would hope that many others, like I myself do, think that this scene could just about only be accomplished in anime. If I saw that same scene attempted in any other medium, not matter what the budget, it could never beat the art and entertainment value that the scene as an anime held. The show has so many other things that bring out what the medium of anime can do best too. The show is full of metaphors where the art style may change sometimes, but when it doesn’t it is completely up to you, the viewer, to determine what is real and what is a metaphor in the show.  Penguindrum doesn’t seem to hold your hand, it wants you to think about what you are watching, to engage with it. At the same time though, Penguindrum never proved to be boring even if you don’t want to go out of the way to understand or uncover all of it’s little messages and metaphors. Probably the thing I would most disagree with what I have heard many other people say about the show is that it is not straight-forward. I feel that even if you just want to take the show at face value, pretty much anyone can follow it and  could explain the narrative in a totally comprehendible way.

To get to the end of my own arc with the show, I actually did end up really liking it all the way to the end, but I do have to say that my enthusiasm near the end of the show was not as high as it was at the beginning. The show deals with many themes, and it can be hard to handle and address these to every viewer’s liking. Themes such as love are universal. Themes such as death are as well. The show deals with these, but it also deals with other societal issues too though, such as stalking, rape, and even terrorism.  For my own tastes, I don’t think these were always well handled with the best of tact. In the end too, despite me liking the story, and the characters, it was hard for me to place a finger on what the “point” of the show is. I myself liked the story as a narrative and felt it was complete. Not every story needs a moral or a message, but I feel that Mawaru Penguindrum does have one, I just don’t know what it was in the end. I feel that part of that is me not wanting to find what every little thing means in the show. At the same time though, I feel that the message of the show is the most important thing for the creators to convey, even if they want to abstract it.

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Also, I originally wanted to upload this with a podcast review as well. My friends and I recently started a podcast called JAMcast Pals where we talk about anime, movies, books, and the like. I was hoping that they could finish the show by today, the last day of the week of Christmas, but it didn’t pan out. They are almost done with it though, and hopefully we should have an episode of it up in the next two days. There really was a lot I wanted to talk about regarding the show, so I hope I will get to talk more in-depth about it on the episode.

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